Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Book Review: Unspeak

The subtitle of British journalist Steven Poole's new book Unspeak (Grove Press, 2006) almost says it all: "How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How The Message Becomes Reality." In the tradition of George Orwell's wonderful and trenchant 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," (and, more recently, Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness"), Poole offers a wry analysis of political language that would at times be hysterically funny ... if it weren't such a serious issue.

Poole defines Unspeak as a term for the packaging of partisan arguments into soundbites, which then carry with them the implications of the argument without its explicit restatement. "It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries tounspeak - in the sense of erasing, or silencing - any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem."

The majority of the examples Poole takes up throughout his text are recent ones, but he admits (correctly, in my view) that Unspeak has "been with us for as long as there has been politics." I agree with him, though, that its power is enhanced by the mass media, the 24-hour news cycle and soundbite culture, and the blogosphere. As Poole writes, "the ever-more-confining structure of television and radio newsbites, in particular, makes Unspeak the ideal vehicle for the dissemination of propaganda, because it packs the maximum amount of persuasion into the smallest space."

This is the converse argument to the "don't listen to politicians, they aren't actually saying anything at all" line of thinking - rather, Poole suggests, they are saying a great deal, but in carefully constructed ways designed to either mute or play up the impact to the highest degree.

Poole discusses the rise of a large cross-section of Unspeak terms from American and British culture in recent decades ("community," "intelligent design," "climate change", "ethnic cleansing", the use of catchy code names for military operations), but focuses most keenly on examples from the post-9/11 era: ("weapons of mass destruction," "war on terror", "abuse" vs. "torture", "enemy combatants", "freedom on the march", etc.). He describes the development of these terms and their adoption by the policy-makers, then by the press and mediators, and then eventually by the public themselves. Poole does quite a good job of examining the obfuscation and linguistic contortions it takes to make these terms stick - one example of this is just too good not to pass along.

First, a quote from SecDef Rumsfeld (September 20, 2001) on what a victory in the newly-christened "war on terror" would look like: "Now, what is victory? I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory in my view."

Now Poole: "It is worth pausing to admire the awesome rhetorical invention on display here. Like a bebop saxophonist, Rumsfeld takes a theme, crawls into it, turns it inside out, and rebuilds it at crazy angles. Translated into simple declarative English, he is saying that the war on terror will be won when everyone is convinced that the war on terror cannot be won in any forseeable future. Victory is defined as persuading us that victory is impossible."

I don't want to spoil the ending (so feel free to stop reading now), but Poole does not believe the answer to Unspeak is more Unspeak. He criticizes those on the American left who "having witnessed the virtuoso use of Unspeak by the Bush adminstration" would resort to the same tactics themselves (this is the George Lakoff school of thought, recently embraced by Howard Dean and others). While Poole is unconvinced (as I must admit I am as well) that political leaders and interest groups will move away from Unspeak and use plain language (ha!), he suggests that the public ought to stop swallowing the terms that are fed to us.

In his conclusion, Poole writes "Unspeak itself does violence: to meaning. It seeks to annihilate distinctions ... [it] finds soothing names for violence so that violence no longer surprises the deadened mind ...." Rather than continuing to allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter of meaning, Poole argues, we must call out the crap when we see it.

Having undoubtedly committed countless acts of Unspeak both in the blog and in my everyday language, I found myself saying "hmm" at various points as I read. I agree with Poole that this is a troublesome practice, but I'm also not convinced it's going anywhere fast. Journalists who cover politics and national affairs would do well to read this book, and I think bloggers (myself absolutely included) could do with a good dose of "Un-Unspeak" as well. Poole as written an interesting and thought-provoking book, and I'm happy to recommend it.


At 1:37 PM, Blogger lecentre said...

Fascinating book, and as you mention, its arguments are worthy of influence. It's not a new topic though... I was taking a humanities course entitled 'war, peace, and the world order' where we examined the use of such terms ... as far back as the climax of the cold war in the 60s and 70s, where people referred to nukes and various weaponry with such household terms as cookie cutters, daisy something or other, and so on.
Euphemisms aren't new.

On a related note, I want to draw your attention to a distinction that needs drawing: you suggested that "weapons of mass destruction" is an example of unspeak, where someone tries to silence an opposing view. At this point, I think it needs to be pointed out that there is a line to be drawn between normal descriptive language and euphemisms.

"Weapons of mass destruction" is not a euphemism in that it doesn't try to lighten something, or close it to debate. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are accurately described by that phrase, they don't make it any more tolerable, and they don't close the issue. They would need to be put into context to avoid a debate. Saying 'wmd' doesn't close the debate as to whether they exist, cause mass destruction, were in saddam's possession, or any other associated debates.
Good review.


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